Big Sky by Kate Atkinson

Having finally caught up with the fourth book in Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie series last year (Started Early, Took My Dog), I have now been able to move on to the new one, Big Sky. For those people who have been reading each book in the series as it was published, there has been a nine year wait between books four and five!

In Big Sky, private investigator Jackson is on the trail of a client’s cheating husband, while also trying, without much success, to keep his teenage son, Nathan, entertained. Nathan’s mother – Jackson’s ex-partner Julia – is busy filming the latest episodes of the TV police drama in which she has a starring role, so thirteen-year-old Nathan has been entrusted to Jackson for the summer, along with Julia’s ageing Labrador, Dido.

Meanwhile, we meet Vince, a man for whom everything seems to be going wrong all at once. First he lost his job, then he split up with his wife and had to move out of the family home, and to make matters worse, he feels that he no longer fits in with his group of friends – they are ‘golfing friends, not friend friends’. Depressed and desperate, Vince finds himself standing on the edge of a cliff and it is here that his path crosses with Jackson’s as both men are drawn into a case involving a ring of crime with its roots going back decades.

Beginning with Jackson and his son watching a recreation of a naval battle on the lake in Scarborough’s Peasholm Park and then moving on to Whitby and Bridlington, the story takes place in and around the seaside towns of the North Yorkshire coast, an area I know well from my own childhood summer holidays. The characters in this novel are not having an idyllic summer by any stretch of the imagination, however, as this is a particularly dark Brodie novel with themes including online paedophilia, human trafficking and sexual abuse. Sadly, it’s all very current and topical.

Like the other books in this series, the plot at first seems to consist of several random, unconnected threads. It takes a while for them to start coming together, but of course they do, linked in traditional Kate Atkinson fashion by a series of coincidences and unusual circumstances. Characters who, at the beginning of the book, appear to have no relation to each other, turn out to be connected in the most unexpected ways. Jackson is at the heart of the story and I always enjoy spending time inside his thoughts (I love his dry, cynical sense of humour), but we also see things from the perspectives of many other characters, all of whom are equally important to the plot.

I particularly liked Crystal, the wife of one of Vince’s golfing friends, who at first appears shallow and artificial, but gradually proves to be a brave and compassionate woman trying to overcome her difficult past and protect her little girl Candy and sixteen-year-old stepson Harry (who is another great character – ‘young for his age but also old for his age’). I also became quite fond of Bunny, the kind-hearted elderly drag queen at the theatre where Harry works, and it was good to be reacquainted with Reggie Chase, the teenage girl from When Will There Be Good News? who is now a police officer tasked with investigating historic allegations of sex abuse.

The Jackson Brodie novels are not my favourites of Kate Atkinson’s books, but I have enjoyed them all, including this one. I still have a few of her standalone books left to read and am hoping to get round to reading Transcription soon, as it has been on my TBR since shortly after it was published!

Started Early, Took My Dog by Kate Atkinson

This is the fourth book in Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie series. For some reason, after reading the first three in quick succession in 2015, I never moved on to this one and it was only with the publication of the fifth book, Big Sky, earlier this year that I remembered I still needed to read it. Fortunately, the Jackson Brodie novels all stand alone very well so I found that it didn’t matter at all that I had left such a long gap between books three and four.

The plot of Started Early, Took My Dog is actually quite difficult to describe, but I’ll do my best. A good place to start is probably with Tracy Waterhouse, a retired police superintendent now working as head of security at the Merrion Shopping Centre in Leeds. Tracy is lonely and bored – she has no family, no friends and no social life; she gets up in the morning, goes to work, then comes home to spend every evening alone eating chocolate in front of the television. Then, one day, as she patrols the Merrion Centre, she sees a little girl being mistreated by Kelly Cross, a prostitute and drug addict whom Tracy recognises from her police days. She makes the decision to intervene and suddenly life becomes much more eventful!

While Tracy is trying to help an abused child, in a parallel storyline the novel’s other main protagonist, private investigator Jackson Brodie, is carrying out a good deed of his own. With a series of failed relationships behind him, Jackson is almost as lonely as Tracy, and when he witnesses a dog being kicked by its owner, he steps in and rescues it. The dog then becomes his inseparable companion as he embarks on his latest case – trying to trace the biological parents of Hope McMaster, a woman who was adopted as a child and grew up in New Zealand. This proves to be more difficult than he expected, because as soon as he starts asking questions it becomes obvious that those who do know the truth about Hope’s parentage will do anything to cover it up.

Jackson’s story quickly begins to intertwine with Tracy’s when he discovers that the murder of a woman in 1975 – a murder scene at which Tracy, then a young police officer, had been present – may have had something to do with the mystery of Hope’s origins. The novel moves backwards and forwards between the 1970s and 2010, showing how the events of the past have had an impact on the events of the present. Some of Tracy’s actions and choices following her encounter with the little girl in the Merrion Centre, for example, seem implausible at first but make more sense once you gain a deeper understanding of her background and her earlier experiences.

As with the other Jackson Brodie books, I found that the crime element of this one took second place to the characters. I thought Tracy was a great character and I loved her relationship with little Courtney, and, similarly, I enjoyed watching Jackson bonding with his new canine companion. The other character who stood out for me was Tilly, an elderly actress who is in the early stages of dementia; the way Kate Atkinson portrays Tilly’s fear and confusion over what is happening felt, to me, very convincing and very moving.

While the characters I’ve mentioned above were excellent, however, there were too many others whom I struggled to distinguish from each other; in particular, the other police officers involved in the 1975 storyline all seemed to blend into one which made that part of the book difficult to follow. There were also some subplots that didn’t seem to go anywhere and some important questions that remained unanswered at the end. Compared with the first three books in the series, I thought this one was disappointing. I’m sure I will still read Big Sky, but there are also a few other Kate Atkinson books I haven’t read yet: Transcription, Emotionally Weird and Not the End of the World. Have you read any of those and is there one you would particularly recommend?

When Will There Be Good News? by Kate Atkinson

When Will There Be Good News It seems that everyone is talking about Kate Atkinson’s new novel, A God in Ruins, at the moment – and that’s definitely a book I would like to read soon, as I loved Life After Life – but I’m also still working through her Jackson Brodie series, of which this book, When Will There Be Good News?, is the third.

The story opens with a tragedy: the murder of a mother and two of her three children as they walk home through the countryside on a beautiful summer’s day. Six-year-old Joanna, who witnesses the brutal attack, is the sole survivor. Thirty years later, Joanna is living in Edinburgh where she is now a doctor with a successful practice and mother of a beloved baby son. She has managed to put the horrors of her childhood behind her and build a new life for herself, but how will she react when she hears that the man who murdered her family is about to be released from prison?

Another character with a troubled past is sixteen-year-old Reggie (short for Regina) Chase, Joanna’s ‘mother’s help’. Reggie is alone in the world apart from her criminal brother, Billy, and the only bright spots in her life are her friendship with Joanna and her love of ancient literature (she has left school but is continuing to study Greek and Latin in private sessions with an eccentric retired teacher, Ms MacDonald). When Joanna and her baby disappear, Reggie is sure something terrible must have happened and she can’t understand why nobody else seems to be worried.

Like the previous two books in this series (Case Histories and One Good Turn), the plot is built around coincidences, chance encounters and interlinking storylines. This is how our old friend Jackson Brodie is brought into the story; accidentally boarding a train heading north towards Edinburgh instead of south to London, he finds himself caught up in a rail disaster which brings him into contact not only with Reggie but also with Detective Chief Inspector Louise Monroe, one of his love interests from One Good Turn. It was nice to meet Jackson and Louise again, but the real star of this book is Reggie, possibly my favourite character to appear in the series so far.

I find Kate Atkinson’s books very quick, addictive reads – despite enjoying them so much that I don’t really want to reach the end, I just can’t seem to read them slowly! As I’ve mentioned before, her books are not conventional crime novels. Crimes are committed and investigated, but the focus tends to be on the impact the crimes have on the characters, and the events and relationships that arise as a result. Each time I’ve finished a Jackson Brodie novel I’ve found that it’s not the plot I remember, but the characters. They are so well developed and so human, with hopes and dreams, likes and dislikes, doubts and worries that any reader will be able to identify with.

This is probably the darkest book of the series so far, with so many tragedies, disasters and accidents that I could certainly understand why it was given the title When Will There Be Good News? The book is not without some humour and lighter moments, though, so don’t let that put you off reading it! I now have only one more Jackson Brodie novel to read (Started Early, Took My Dog), but I may be tempted to read A God in Ruins first – or is there another Kate Atkinson book you think I really need to read without delay?

One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson

One Good Turn After reading Case Histories, the first of Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie novels just before New Year, I was desperate to continue with the series. Luckily, I saw a copy of the second book, One Good Turn (subtitled A Jolly Murder Mystery), on the shelf on my next visit to the library so I didn’t have too long to wait!

Following the events of Case Histories, Jackson Brodie has given up his private investigating, taken his inheritance and is leading a quiet life in the French countryside. At the beginning of One Good Turn, he is visiting Scotland for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival where his girlfriend, Julia, is acting in a new play. On Tuesday, as he waits to enter a comedy venue, Jackson witnesses a road rage incident in which one man attacks another with a baseball bat. Jackson doesn’t want to get involved but it seems that he may have no choice.

Another bystander is crime writer Martin Canning, who intervenes by throwing his laptop at the assailant – and then begins to wish he hadn’t when he is asked to accompany the victim to hospital and stay with him overnight. They say that one good turn deserves another, but Martin’s good turn leads to a chain of bizarre incidents that could almost have come straight out of the pages of one of his own Nina Riley crime novels.

Over the next four days, a complex plot unfolds involving a fraudulent businessman, a mysterious cleaning company, a knife-wielding Russian girl, two teenage shoplifters, an unwelcome guest and an aggressive dog. Jackson can’t help being drawn into the investigations, but as the mystery deepens he finds that he has become both a victim and a suspect.

I had enjoyed Case Histories but I thought this one was even better. It was good to meet Jackson again and to see how his relationship with Julia has developed, but I also think it’s good that Jackson is only one of a large cast of eccentric, colourful characters, each of whom becomes caught up in the whirlwind of events. Atkinson puts so much detail and so much humour into her characterisation that each one feels like a real person – we can laugh at them and with them, but we can understand them and have sympathy for them as well.

In this book, we get to know Gloria Hatter, the bored and disillusioned wife of an unscrupulous businessman in trouble for fraud; police detective Louise Monroe, who is trying to investigate the case while struggling to cope with the behaviour of her teenage son; and my favourite, Martin the crime novelist, a shy, reclusive man still haunted by memories of a disastrous trip to Russia several years earlier. Martin’s Nina Riley mysteries sounded so much fun I kept wishing they really existed!

The one criticism I had of Case Histories – the fact that it dealt with three separate storylines that never really came together – was not a problem with this book, as it’s more of a conventional crime novel in that respect. Characters and events that seemed unrelated at the beginning do eventually begin to overlap and things start to fall into place (comparisons are made throughout the novel to a set of Russian dolls, with one fitting inside the other). I loved the ending too; there was a surprise on the final page that left me questioning everything I’d read about one of the characters!

Now I’m looking forward to reading the third book in the series, When Will There Be Good News?

Case Histories by Kate Atkinson

Case Histories My first introduction to Kate Atkinson’s work was Life After Life, which I read in 2013 and loved. I’ve been wanting to read more of her books and knowing that a lot of people speak very highly of her Jackson Brodie novels, I decided to start with the first one in the series, Case Histories.

In Case Histories, private detective Jackson Brodie is investigating three old cases that have remained unresolved for years:

Case History No. 1 – During the summer heatwave of 1970, three-year-old Olivia Land is sleeping in a tent in the garden with her older sister, Amelia. When Amelia wakes up, she finds that Olivia has disappeared without trace.

Case History No. 2 – In 1994, eighteen-year-old Laura Wyre is murdered on her first day working in her father’s office. Her killer has still not been found and no motive for the attack has ever been discovered.

Case History No. 3 – In 1979, Michelle Fletcher is living on an isolated farm with her new husband and baby daughter. Depressed, lonely and finding it hard to cope, an argument with her husband ends in a brutal murder.

The connection between these three stories is Jackson Brodie, who is contacted by family members hoping to have the cases reopened or looked at again. Amelia and Julia Land want to find out what happened to their little sister, Olivia, and whether she could still be alive; Laura’s father, Theo, wants to know who killed his beloved daughter and why; and Shirley Morrison is searching for her sister Michelle’s daughter, with whom she lost contact after the incident which tore their family apart. But Jackson has problems of his own and as he begins to investigate these three very different crimes, he is reminded of a tragedy in his own past and another ‘lost girl’ who disappeared from his life decades earlier.

I loved Case Histories. I know describing a book as unputdownable is a cliché, but it was true in this case – it really is the sort of book where once you start reading, you don’t want to stop until you reach the end. It’s a crime novel I would recommend even to readers who are not really interested in crime fiction because, while the three mysteries are quite interesting, the real strength of the book is in the characterisation. The story is not so much about the crimes themselves as about the effect they had on the people involved and how they have tried (and often failed) to move on from what has happened.

I liked Jackson and am looking forward to meeting him again in the rest of the series, but my favourites in this book were Amelia and Theo. Amelia, who is approaching middle age feeling friendless and unwanted, has invented an imaginary boyfriend to brighten up her non-existent social life, and Theo, for whom his daughter was the centre of his universe, is neglecting his health while he devotes his life to finding her killer, drawing up colour-coded charts of her friends and teachers and making yearly pilgrimages to the scene of her death. Their lives are sad, lonely and tragic, yet Atkinson injects just enough humour into their stories to turn them into characters who are amusing but not ridiculous, flawed but sympathetic.

I also thought the structure of the book was interesting, because the timeline is not entirely linear. We see events from one perspective in one chapter, then in the next chapter we go back several hours, days or weeks to see those same events from another character’s perspective, filling in gaps and adding to our knowledge of what is going on. Two of the case histories – Olivia’s disappearance and Laura’s murder – worked very well alongside each other, but the third one, involving Michelle and her sister, felt disconnected from the others and didn’t work quite as well. I think I had expected all three cases to be much more closely linked than they actually were and I was disappointed that they weren’t.

At the end of the book, after Jackson is sure he’s solved the crimes, there are still more twists to come. We are given enough information throughout the story so that we can guess at what may have happened and work out some parts of the mystery, but the final pieces of the puzzle are withheld from us until the very end.

That’s two Kate Atkinson books read and two enjoyed; now I can’t wait to read the second book in the Jackson Brodie series, One Good Turn.